In additon to wearing masks, students practice social distancing throughout the Jefferson County school system. Some of math teacher Lakeshia Ford’s students participate in class from home via Zoom. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

A day after the state Senate proposed the largest Mississippi teacher pay raise in decades, the House topped it with its own proposal that would increase all teachers by $4,000 to $6,000 a year and boost starting pay above both the Southeastern and national averages.

“This is a long-term solution, not just a one-time raise where you throw $1,000 at teachers,” said House Education Chairman Richard Bennett, author of the bill called the “START Act of 2022.”

The bill, which passed the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, will soon be considered by the entire House.

“We’ve worked on this for two years, worked with the (Southern Region Education Board), worked with teachers, looked at other states … This is an historic moment for our students and for our teachers,” Bennett said. “This will make us more competitive with other states and help address our teacher shortage.”

The House plan would increase starting teacher pay from $37,000 a year to $43,125. This would put Mississippi above both the Southeastern average of $39,754 and the national average of $41,163. The Senate’s plan would increase starting pay to $40,000, but would provide substantial increases at five-year intervals throughout a teacher’s career.

“Notably, Alabama and Louisiana, where many Mississippi teachers have moved for higher paying jobs, pay starting salaries of $41,845 and $42,547, respectively,” Bennett said.

READ MORE: Senate leaders unveil historic plan to significantly increase teacher pay

The House plan would cost taxpayers $219 million a year starting next fiscal year, compared to the Senate plan, which would cost $210 million a year after a two-year phase-in. The Senate’s plan includes a year-two, $44 million across-the-board increase of $1,000 per teacher. The House plan includes a $2,000 increase for teachers assistants, who are not included in the Senate plan.

Both plans would “restructure” the teacher salary ladder or “steps” that determine pay for teachers at various levels of experience and training. The House plan would provide more immediate increases ranging from $4,000 to $6,000. The Senate plan after two years would provide an average increase of $4,700, but would provide for larger bumps in pay at each five-year interval in a teacher’s career.

Mississippi’s teacher pay by several metrics are the lowest in the nation. Mississippi public education advocates who watched the unveiling of the dueling teacher pay raise proposals this week said they’ve been pleasantly surprised as they began parsing the plans.

“This sounds like a great start,” said Nancy Loome, director of The Parents’ Campaign. “I would think there could be some sort of compromise, taking the best aspects of both plans — but it is great that there’s a movement to do something substantial … It looks like the House plan is more front-loaded, and the Senate more long-term.”

Kelly Riley, director of the Mississippi Professional Educators, said increasing starting and continuing pay “would make us more competitive, not just for recruiting teachers, but in the classrooms and as a state.”

Bennett said he has not seen all the details of the Senate plan — the bill has not yet been published — but he believes “ours is better.”

“The Senate plan is spread over two years, while the House plan invests roughly the same amount in just one year,” Bennett said. “Under the Senate plan, some experienced teachers with advanced degrees will see an increase of as little as $5 in year one, and as little as $1,005 over the full two-year phase in … The House plan provides a minimum of $4,000 in one year for all teachers.”

He also said that over 10 years, a new teacher would see thousands less in pay from the Senate plan, and noted that plan does not address teacher assistants’ pay.

Teacher pay is a top issue for this legislative session, with Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, House Speaker Philip Gunn and Gov. Tate Reeves all voicing support for “significant” teacher salary increase this year.

When Bennett presented the plan to the House Appropriations Committee, some members questioned the cost — whether the state could afford such a recurring expense. He said the raise would be paid for with recurring revenue, not “one-time” money will not strain the relatively flush state budget.

Rep. Dan Eubanks, R-Walls, said he’s heard that Mississippi’s state retirement and other benefits are as good or better than surrounding states and questioned why the starting teacher pay should be increased to above the regional and national averages.

“The reason is we are not competitive with other states right now and we’re losing teachers,” Bennett said. “They’re kicking our butts.”

READ MORE: Inside Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann’s relationship

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.